Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Word before the text

Read I Thessalonians 2:7-13

When hearing the expression “The Word of God,” one often thinks of the Bible, of the written text we call the Sacred Scriptures. This is quite normal, but it is good to remember that this “Word” existed before any text was written. The last verse of today’s reading reminds us of this fact.

Paul praises the Thessalonians because they have received his teaching not as a “human word” but as the “Word of God.” Yet Paul had no text to show them at that time. In fact, this letter to the Thessalonians is the first text of what would eventually become the New Testament. During the following years, new texts would be added: Paul’s other letters, and letters from other Apostles, as well as the writings of the four Evangelists, the story of the Acts of the Apostles, and John’s vision which we call the Book of Revelation. Yet before any of these texts were written, Paul was proclaiming the Word of God.

To what then is he referring? He is referring to the stories the other Apostles have taught him and to his own conversion experience when he met the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. That is the content of his preaching and teaching. The stories about Jesus that are being shared, the reflection of the young Christian community as it gathers to pray and celebrate the Lord, this is what makes up the Word of God before the New Testament was written. The Church, God’s own people, is the cradle in which was born the New Testament.

If the Church gave birth to the Scriptures, it is normal that the Church also be the place where this text is proclaimed, studied and prayed. This is not to say that one shouldn’t read the Bible alone. But it reminds us that, even when we do read it alone, the community which gave birth to the text remains the community of understanding and interpretation which can hand it on in faithfulness.

My grandmother had a box of photographs. When we opened this box, we wanted her near us, for she alone knew the stories “behind” the pictures: she could name the people in the pictures and explain their meaning. Pictures are like footprints left by people and events that, though they belong to the past, still have an impact on our lives today.

The Bible is like a box of pictures giving witness to the great adventure we call Salvation history; and the Church is like my grandmother who took the pictures, who understands their meaning, who uses them to help us enter into the living story of wonderful characters, the first of which is the Lord Jesus himself.

Believing in the “Word of God” is more than recognizing the truth of a text. It means entering into the living history which the text is telling, in communion with the Church which gave it birth.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Priests of Jesus-Christ

Read Hebrews 5:1-6

This week, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews considers the priests of the Old Testament. We should know that these men had one main task, offering up sacrifices in the Temple of Jerusalem on behalf of those who belonged to the people of Israel. To be a priest, one had to be the son of a priest, a descendant of the first priest Aaron, brother of Moses. Sons of priests had no say in the matter, they had to accept their prescribed tasks. There were therefore many priests in Israel, which meant they had to take their turn in serving at the Temple, usually two weeks a year. The remainder of the year, they had to earn their living as any other person would.

In many fundamental ways, the priesthood of the New Testament is radically different from that of the Old Testament. A first difference: in Christ, the whole people is priestly, each baptized person participating in the priesthood of Christ. Yet, certain members of the Church participate in Christ’s ministry to his people in a particular way. In Christ, and with Christ, they offer themselves for the service of leadership, guiding the life and the prayer of God’s people, presiding at the sacraments of Christ, animating the whole activity of the Church.

Yet they are not unlike the priests of the Old Testament: they are ordinary men, sharing the weaknesses and needs of all other members of God’s people. They are not there because their fathers were priests, but because they felt a pressing invitation from God in the depth of their hearts. This call is not for them a matter of pride, for it is a call to humble service.

Not so long ago, priests were put on pedestals, they were treated with kid gloves. They were considered superior to ordinary people, perhaps because of their many years of study, or the authority that was given them over the community, or their commitment to celibacy. Yet, these men are quite human. They have both qualities and faults, both strengths and weaknesses. With all the other members of God’s people, they start each Mass by asking forgiveness for their sins. They need God’s mercy and grace as much as everybody else.

It is only in being deeply united to Christ that they can ensure the service of leadership in the heart of the Church with compassion and humility. With Christ, they give their lives for the Church. With Christ, they become servants of all.